…In relentless pursuit of all performances nominated and won!
1972’s Sounder is truly one of those films about growing up – and doing so in a pretty speedy way – at a relatively young age. Set in Depression-era Louisiana, the story revolves around an African American sharecropping family with a mighty sweet and loyal pooch named – of course – Sounder. Paul Winfield and Cicely Tyson play Nathan and Rebecca Morgan, the parents of three young children who assist with chores around their small farm, where they grow sugar cane. When Nathan commits petty theft, his landing in jail – and subsequently prison camp – has the eldest son, David Lee (Kevin Hooks) assuming the role of the “man of the family”. Anxious to maintain contact with her husband, Rebecca sends David out on a long journey on foot with Sounder to find where Nathan is imprisoned. Along the way, David meets and befriends a kindly young schoolteacher named Ms. Johnson (Janet MacLachlan) who sees much potential in David as a student. Once David returns to his home, he is torn between going back to stay with Ms. Johnson to be schooled, or staying with his family in light of the imminent return of his father.
Cicely Tyson plays Rebecca Morgan with an understated, quiet dignity and grace befitting the role. There is an undercurrent of great strength beneath her character from the get-go; Tyson does a marvelous job relating this in light of the family’s troubles, once Nathan is arrested and unable to be at home during the harvesting of the crops which is their livelihood. Kevin Hooks is wonderful, too, as young David Lee. The film largely seems to belong to him, as he undergoes an odyssey of sorts with Sounder while searching for his father in prison camp. He plays the role very well. Paul Winfield adds a nice counterpoint to Cicely Tyson as Nathan. He conveys a more dominating, controlling nature befitting his fatherly role. He is not above doing something foolish – like stealing – to maintain his family’s survival, but clearly, this only makes Rebecca’s gentler, sensible way of doing things even more apparent. Tyson portrays her in such a way that we believe she is the stronger of the two, when it all comes down to it.
Interestingly enough, while the film (and the book on which it is based) is named for the Morgan family dog, Old Yeller this isn’t. Only a small bit of the plot revolves around Sounder (including one heart-wrenching scene, if you’re a softie for animals as I am, in which Sounder is hurt). Otherwise, Sounder dissolves mostly into the background and plays a curiously minor role for being the titular character. His key moment seems to be his travels with David. I found myself searching for reasons why the story was given the title. Perhaps it is because the family drew much of their strength from the steadfastness and loyalty of the dog, and it allowed them to take a lesson and draw courage and hope from each other – but then again, I may be stretching it a bit looking at it this way.
Sounder won critical acclaim and was nominated for 4 Academy Awards (Picture, Actor, Actress, and Adapted Screenplay) in the year The Godfather swept most of them. It is a remarkable film to look at today in light of the trend toward “blacksploitation” films of the early ’70’s (such as Shaft) which were more urban and edgy. In fact, it caught much flack for this; African Americans at the time found Sounder‘s sharecropper characters to be a demeaning back-track. Cicely Tyson, however, was very vocal that it was the blacksploitation films, rather, that were doing African Americans justice, whereas films like Sounder provided a more uplifting, prideful, and affirming message. Her voice was heard loud and clear, and certainly echoed through her terrific – and full of heart – performance in this film. While she received three critics’ awards for her performance, she lost the Oscar to Liza Minnelli in Cabaret. Revered over the years for her striking beauty and poise as well as her tremendous body of work in film and television, Tyson has not been nominated since Sounder.